Case Studies

Pacific Forest Trust: Carbon Projects to Mitigate Climate Change

Since 1993, the Pacific Forest Trust (PFT) has been dedicated to conserving and sustaining America’s vital, productive forest landscapes. Working with forest owners, communities, and an array of partners, this conservation organization is advancing innovative, incentive-based strategies to safeguard our nation’s diverse forests. This work ensures forests continue to provide people throughout the nation — from rural communities to urban centers — with a wealth of benefits, including clean water, sustainably harvested wood, green jobs, wildlife habitat, and a livable climate.

Value of the land and habitat

The Pacific Forest Trust (PFT) works with forest owners, public agencies and communities to conserve significant forests in the Pacific West. PFT also works nationally to promote policy initiatives that advance the conservation and stewardship of private working forests around the United States. Recognized as a national leader in sustainable forestry and conservation, to date PFT has conserved more than 238,000 acres of forestland in California, Oregon and Washington, including 83,000 acres conserved with working forest conservation easements.

Conservation concerns

Development, historic use and other economic pressures as well as changing ecological conditions are some of the most pressing challenges to forest health and conservation efforts in the Pacific West. PFT also helps to protect the integrity of important publicly-owned forests and parks by strategically conserving neighboring private lands threatened by fragmentation, degradation and development.  A key motivator for PFT in developing forest carbon policies and projects is that forest carbon projects provide landowners with direct and competitive financial return for both staying in forest use, and restoring older, more natural forests.

What’s being done and how

The Pacific Forest Trust (PFT) implements a land acquisition strategy that works to “Retain, Sustain, and Gain” forests. To Retain our nation’s forests PFT emphasizes raising awareness about how forests benefit all Americans and how increasingly threatened these woodlands are by expanding real estate development and other forces. PFT works to Sustain forests by employing state-of-the-art forest stewardship and conservation practices on the thousands of acres they manage in the Pacific West, and expand conservation collaborations to the landscape level. Through national advocacy, outreach and sharing management expertise, this conservation organization also promotes exemplary forest management so people across the United States will better understand that good forestry is key to the conservation of nature. Additionally, PFT aims to help us all Gain from working forests by developing new, practical and cost-effective ways to encourage forest owners and managers to protect the natural qualities of their forests. This focus includes working to advance policies that provide landowners with new sources of revenue and other incentives for conservation and stewardship of their forests’ natural values, such as increasing the storage of carbon dioxide (CO2), protecting water supplies, and enhancing habitat for fish and wildlife.

PFT is an early pioneer of techniques and standards used to create forest carbon projects—also known as emissions reductions or offset projects—which harness and protect the natural ability of forests to accumulate and hold carbon, acting as carbon “sinks” and providing essential climate benefits. These projects can be structured in several ways, but primarily they are designed to enhance the landscape’s ability to sequester carbon by:

  • Letting trees grow older and larger on average before harvest through Improved Forest Management (IFM) projects;
  • Implementing reforestation on former forestland (Reforestation projects);
  • Prevent the loss or “conversion” of forests to non-forest uses like development, thus safeguarding their ability to serve as carbon sinks (Avoided Conversion projects).

While working forest conservation easements are useful in all of the above project categories, they are required for “Avoided Conversion” projects in the  compliance market. With these projects, landowners create emissions reductions that are additional to what would have been gained with business-as-usual forest management. Once these gains are verified through rigorous, government-approved standards, landowners can market the verified emissions reductions, now known as ARBOCs, or regulatory compliance Offset Credits, creating a new income stream derived from stewarding their land and its essential climate benefits to the public. Customers for those ARBOCs include utilities and other companies complying with greenhouse gas reduction regulations, such as California’s Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006 (AB32) or the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative in the New England states – both use the same standards. In addition, many individuals, businesses and organizations seeking to voluntarily reduce their carbon footprint will purchase credits from forests to offset emissions.

Current implementation status

The Pacific Forest Trust (PFT) is a national leader in developing public policies, scientific accounting, and practical on-the-ground forest projects to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions that fuel climate disruption. These forest carbon projects help protect the atmosphere while yielding financial rewards for providing this critical service. Today PFT is helping landowners from coast to coast establish carbon projects designed to meet the highest quality standards for the developing carbon market.

PFT pioneered the use of “working forest conservation easements” that ensure forests stay as forests and are well managed for all the benefits they can provide. To demonstrate how forest carbon projects work on the ground, PFT implemented the first emissions reductions project registered by the state of California’s Climate Action Reserve Program in the 2,200 acre van Eck Forest in Humboldt County, California..  That voluntary program has evolved into part of the state’s now regulatory program, and the Van Eck project is being transitioned to a compliance project under the Air Resources Board (ARB) PFT’s forest operations are also certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC).  Additionally, the van Eck forests include 7,200 acres in Oregon’s Linn and Benton Counties.  These forests are conserved with WFCEs.  Through PFT’s stewardship, the Van Eck working forests are economically self-sustaining.

The California Van Eck Forest has 405,503 tons of additional carbon since 2005, and has produced 13 million FSC-certified board feet in the same time period. Revenue from these stewardship forests will covers all operating expenses and generates additional income for the Van Eck Forest Foundation to support forest research and graduate scholarships at Purdue University. Since launching the Van Eck Forest Project in 2002, PFT has helped to develop 10 new carbon projects in California, Washington State, Georgia, Tennessee, Virginia, and Maine.

Engaging Stakeholders

To support its mission to Retain, Sustain, and Gain forest resources, the Pacific Forest Trust works with conservation partners, landowners, communities and public agencies. As carbon offset projects become more standard with large land owners, PFT is sharing success stories highlighting the economic and ecological value of this management approach to support on the ground project implementation and policy reform across the nation. From the 2002 implementation of the first forest emissions reduction project registered under California’s Forest Protocols to new projects in Washington State, Georgia, Tennessee, Virginia, and Maine, each successful example of working forests providing carbon offsets creates a stronger case – both economic and ecological – for this enhanced approach to forest management. Partnerships supporting carbon-sensitive stewardship as well as education and policy reform are and will continue to be an essential element of PFT’s ongoing success. Over 1,000,000 of forest carbon projects are now either completed or in development (listing stage) under the Climate Action Reserve for the compliance market.

Key Partners

PFT provides technical advisory and related project development services to a range of partners from family-forest owners like the Phillips Family Tree Farm in Oak Run, California, to the non-profit Appalachian Mountain Club in Maine, to timber investment management firms such as the Campbell Group and the Forestland Group that PFT advised on gas projects in McCloud, California and Virginia respectively. Other current collaborations include participation in coalitions such as the Carbon Canopy Project, which is working with corporate and non-profit stakeholders like Staples, Inc., Columbia Forest Products, and Dogwood Alliance to develop of a suite of projects with landowners in the hardwood forests of the central Appalachian Cumberland Plateau area. These projects will generate climate benefits to complement the production of sustainably harvested wood under the Forest Stewardship Council’s standard.

Next steps

Currently PFT is collaborating with a multitude of working lands stakeholders to call on policymakers to safeguard U.S. forests and their climate benefits in legislation that would regulate greenhouse gas emissions. For U.S. forests and other working lands to be leveraged for significant and lasting climate benefits, PFT recommends a strategy to:

  • Invest commensurately in the conservation and stewardship of America’s working land infrastructure for the climate benefits it provides, from carbon sequestration to water supplies and habitat for wildlife adaptation;
  • Support sustainable woody biomass production from forest waste, which currently provides almost half of the nation’s clean, renewable, domestic energy;
  • Accurately account for the carbon stored in and released from U.S. forests;
  • Mitigate for lands lost to development and conversion; and
  • Create a robust, high-quality offset market for emissions reductions from forests.

As California implements and further develops its plans to achieve its climate goals under AB 32, PFT is working closely with the state Air Resources Board and stakeholders to ensure that the contributions of forests as a sector are recognized in a comprehensive way. The state has adopted PFT’s framework that calls for measuring and monitoring forest carbon stocks and changes, mitigating losses, and marketing gains. At the same time, PFT has and continues to work to directly influenced policies across the country, within the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative region including the Mid-Atlantic States (which has now adopted California’s forest offset protocols), Washington and Oregon States, the Western Climate Initiative, the Southeast region and at the federal level. In May 2008, PFT President Laurie Wayburn testified about the role of forests in achieving U.S. climate goals in the first Congressional hearing ever on the subject. She also has worked with Al Gore and his Alliance for Climate Protection and the Green Group coalition of leading national environmental groups, to promote national climate policy goals compatible with international climate processes. Efforts to support meaningful mitigation and adaptation policies can and are resulting in enhanced conservation tools to address climate change.

Lessons Learned

  •  A systems approach can yield better projects and policies. When working to safeguard complex ecosystems, a systems approach is invaluable to informing on-the-ground management. No conservation, restoration, or mitigation project can be implemented in a vacuum, and by understanding and implementing a systemic approach, more robust stewardship decisions can be reached. Similarly, conservation organizations must work within intricate socio-political environments at local, regional, national, and even global levels. Organizations that have the capacity to engage in policy advocacy have the opportunity to educate law makers and stakeholders about the multiple indispensable benefits of the work they do. This type of outreach can yield significant advances in the policy and practice that informs how we manage these resources.
  • Engaging in politics can achieve significant change. Had PFT and their partners in the conservation community and private sector not engaged in the political dialog surrounding AB 32, forest emissions credits may not be available today. This is a resounding example of how education and advocacy can support significant policy change – change which is crucial to expanding the conservation toolbox to combat the impacts and threats of climate change.
  • Flexibility is an asset. When lawmakers were drafting AB 32, PFT realized the importance of being flexible regarding the type of tools that were applied to working forests to achieve the desired mitigation results. While land trusts and stewardship organizations often implement conservation easements to achieve their objectives, this tool did not fit well into the structure of AB 32, and fighting to require all offset lands be conserved through easements as well would have been complicating, if not a deal-breaker. By recognizing this and requiring rolling 100 year commitments for offsets, PFT was able to work with the legislature and stakeholders to develop workable management policies, effectively creating a new conservation tool that is yielding ecological and economic benefits today.
  • Stick to your principles – you can win! By being persistent PFT was able to lobby the legislature to include permanence requirements for offsets as a goal for investments in climate action from AB 32.